Battle Lands at Dallas Airport

After a 31-year absence, American Airlines will soon return to Dallas Love Field with mainline jets, executives said Wednesday, taking on Southwest Airlines in what will likely be a bruising competition for North Texas passengers flying to Missouri.

American's Love Field service, which is likely to begin after the first of the year, will come thanks to a transportation spending bill that President Bush signed into law Wednesday.

The bill exempts Missouri from the Wright Amendment, allowing nonstop flights from Love to St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Fort Worth-based airline, the world's largest carrier, will launch Love service as soon as gates and airport facilities are ready, spokesman Tim Wagner said.

In announcing the service, American executives are making good on promises to move flights from Dallas/Fort Worth to Love if the Wright restrictions are loosened. Wagner declined to specify how many flights would be shifted but said a decision will be made soon.

Southwest is expected to begin service to Missouri before the end of the year. The Dallas-based airline, the nation's largest discount carrier, was scheduled to announce details of nonstop flights to St. Louis and Kansas City today.

"We are incredibly excited," said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart. "The folks in the Show-Me State are going to show everyone what it means to have low-fare service to Dallas."

The Missouri exemption is the first crack in the Wright Amendment since 1997, when Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas were exempted. The amendment is a 1979 federal law, crafted by former House Speaker Jim Wright of Fort Worth, that confined Love service to Texas and bordering states.

Southwest executives have been lobbying Congress for a year to repeal the amendment, which they argue is outdated and anti-competitive.

American and D/FW officials have defended the law, countering that it is necessary to protect the larger airport's finances and the area economy.

American vacated Love in 1974 and moved its flights to then-new Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, where today it operates its largest hub.

The airline briefly flew from Love in 2000, but only with airplanes that had been reconfigured to hold just 56 passengers, which was allowed under the amendment.

That service targeted fledgling competitor Legend Airlines, which shut down in 2001. American pulled out of Love shortly thereafter.

American leases three gates in Love's east concourse that it has never used. The airline shared a gate with Continental for its 2000 service.

That means that the airline must install ticket counters, jetways and passenger facilities as well as computers and other equipment before beginning service. Part of American's leased property at Love is now being used by airplanes of shipping firm DHL.

In addition to St. Louis and Kansas City, American is considering adding other cities within the Wright boundaries, such as Houston or San Antonio, to its Love service, one person with the airline said.

Southwest will likely establish Missouri service faster. The airline will add St. Louis and Kansas City flights from the 14 gates it uses at the airport, Stewart said.

He said the airline will throw "one heck of a big party" when the first flight departs. "We'll do it full Southwest style," he said.

The competition between the two carriers will certainly be fierce -- which will be good news for travelers. Fares are likely to fall substantially as American matches Southwest's prices.

One analyst recently speculated that American is likely to be the loser in the battle. Roger King of CreditSights, an independent research firm in New York, said this week that American could lose as much as $100 million a year in revenue on the Missouri flights, while Southwest could gain as much as $80 million annually.

For Love Field, it means the first new flights in some time. Although its headquarters is next to the airport, Southwest has been trimming its schedule there even as it grows in other cities. Traffic at Love is down 18 percent since 2000.

For D/FW, the new flights to Missouri will likely result in some loss of service to St. Louis and Kansas City as American shifts flights to the Dallas airport. And American executives have also warned that moving flights to Love could mean additional reductions at D/FW as its hub there shrinks.

The exemption comes largely from the efforts of Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who inserted the provision in the transportation spending bill. Bond, a Wright opponent, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the nation's transportation system.

"I am pleased that I was able to exempt Missouri from this anti-competitive, anti-consumer policy," Bond said in a statement.

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